I love fall. The temperature in air dips down to a pleasant range that isn’t oppressively hot, or stinging cold. Leaves change color, and with every passing day, we get closer to the holiday season and quality time with our friends and families.
We’re also in the midst of the World Series at this time of year. Both the Dodgers and the Astros have already played 162+ games, but this is where the game of baseball matters most.
Getting through a 6 month-long season and then having to play another month in a high-pressure environment is no easy task. This is especially true when you play almost everyday as baseball players do. At the end of a long season like this, what is responsible for the game-changing performance that guides an athlete and his/her team to a championship? There are some valuable takeaways from the World Series about fitness and performance, which I’ll detail below.
A Year’s (or More) Worth of Preparation
The body goes through a lot over the course of a competitive season that lasts well over 6 months, spring training and the post-season included. Teams travel from coast to coast and play across the country in every time zone. There are many competing demands on a player’s physical well-being, but performing well in games takes precedence ahead of proper sleep, recovery, and even fitness.
But training to get better or even just to maintain fitness doesn’t stop. Chances are, the players who are succeeding on the biggest stage right now started preparing to do so at least a year ago. For players who are on the fringes of a roster, struggling to catch on, or anyone who wants to have a better season than their last one really, the off-season is precious. It’s the beginning of a journey to get better, and there isn’t much time to squander. Ever heard of the saying, “failing to plan, is planning to fail?” This is especially true here.
For the majority of us in the general population, it is hard to think about where you want to be in a year’s time, and some of your goals probably seem far away or unachievable. But the worst thing you can do is dwell on those goals and not actually take action on them. Before you know it, you won’t have much time left, and you’ll have less room for error in your training to be the best.
Maintenance of Physical Fitness
The reason the off-season is such precious training time for baseball players is because that is the only time in the calendar year that they are in complete control of their own lives and their fitness. Simply put, the 6+ month-long season is designed to beat them down, whether we know it or not.
This is why it’s important to get as much of a head-start on fitness and performance before the season begins as possible. No matter how you began, chances are you’ll be in worse physical shape by the end of it.
In fact, athletes don’t train to be more “athletic”; most train to be more durable and resilient so that they can get through a full season and then some. Seasoned athletes know that they shouldn’t struggle to finish a season only to limp to the finish line.
To succeed over a long season, you have to be stingy with your physical resources, just like a marathon runner leading up to the marathon. Despite the inherent unfairness of the baseball schedule, athletes must do everything in their power to eat well, sleep well, and recover well. And often times, this is just to maintain the physical fitness they started with at the beginning of the season.
As such, in-season training is really in-season maintenance, but no less important. And there’s more that you can do than you think. Just because you’re in-season doesn’t mean you have to entirely ditch the movements you trained with in the off-season. Maintenance means maintaining strength, while minimizing fatigue from novel movements, or overexertion that could interfere with performance on the field. This typically means lower training volume and emphasizing concentric over eccentric muscle contractions (the latter which elicits soreness), with only a slight drop-off in lifting intensity.
Athletes have long grueling seasons, but it’s no different for us and our busy-ness with work and life. Maintenance is the name of the game here, especially if life is throwing you multiple curveballs. You do what you can to maintain everything you’ve got.
The Balance of Arousal and Performance
Performance, either physical or mental, requires a level of arousal or excitement that matches the task at hand. Whether it’s the last deadlift attempt of a powerlifting meet, a crucial at-bat in baseball that can put your team ahead, or the eleventh hour before a deadline to close a deal at work, you won’t be able to complete the task without a certain level of mental alertness, focus, and grit.
The relationship between performance and arousal is adequately described by the Yerkes-Dodson Law. For most tasks, the relationship can be best visualized as an upside-down U-curve. Before a certain point of mental arousal or past it, performance in the task suffers; there is an elusive sweet spot for every task out there.
Task difficulty also has to be accounted for. An easy task like studying for a job interview requires much less arousal than attempting a PR on the squat. You don’t exactly have to be “amped up” to study hard.
In certain cases though, hyper-arousal doesn’t negatively affect performance, especially when a task is simple or second-nature. I would argue that hitting a baseball or making pinpoint throws falls into this category, but only after a certain point.
The elusive end-goal is to be able to harness high arousal for a technically demanding skill that also requires strength and power. This is usually the type of thing you do in sports or in the gym; like hitting a baseball for a go-ahead homerun in the last inning. This skill must be second nature to allow high arousal to maximize the strength and power necessary to complete the task. Otherwise, there is a greater potential for error.
This is why reps upon reps in practice are necessary for perfection. Practicing under low arousal is crucial. Even so, nothing in practice can prepare you for the uncertainty of playing in front of the largest crowds of the season.
Pushing the limits of performance on the field or in the gym is a high-threshold task on its own. When it matters most, hopefully you’ve practiced enough to make that task reflexive and second-nature so that you’re ready to dominate when arousal kicks in.
The fourth gate that unlocks game-changing performance is perhaps the least important, as it can’t be controlled and usually arises only in a “fight or flight” scenario. But yes, adrenaline is another component of high performance in high-stress situations. Competitive adrenaline adds to a player’s already elite athletic performance. We’ve all heard stories about road accidents where people get pinned under cars, and regular folks lifting them off in order to save their lives. The mechanisms of these extreme cases are not well-researched, but adrenaline does enhance performance and physical capabilities, when the environment is hostile and stressful. Anecdotally, I’ve read and heard about competitive adrenaline adding 3-4 mph on a pitcher’s average fastball.
It should be no surprise that game-changing fitness and performance when it matters most begins with training and preparation well before the event in question. For the players involved, let’s all admire their hard work and dedication to succeed at this time, and continue to enjoy the World Series as it reaches its dramatic conclusion!
by Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach and Metabolic Lab Manager at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.